Plant life: Spring blooms snowy white

Rhododendron 'Ptarmigan'
Rhododendron 'Ptarmigan'
The weatherman keeps promising snow, but a more reliable way to get a covering is by planting white early-flowering dwarf rhododendrons.

Northerner

The Cox family have run a garden and nursery in Glendoick, Scotland for many years, and it was here in the late 1950s that they began breeding the Glendoick bird hybrid series of dwarf Rhododendron including R. `Ptarmigan'.

This particular hybrid was a result of crossing two species from China, Rhododendron orthocladum, and R. leucaspis.

As with the shrub after which it is named, the ptarmigan's plumage turns white in the winter to camouflage it perfectly with the snow.

It is a low growing, spreading shrub smothered in broad funnel-shaped pure white flowers with contrasting dark anthers.

The leaves are small, up to 2.5cm, and fragrant when crushed.

Once established, it is reasonably drought resistant and would do well planted in a container.

It is flowering now in Dunedin Botanic Garden's Rock Garden and also the Rhododendron Dell Peat Garden.

Southerner

With full buds ready to burst, Rhododendron `September Snow' shares one common parent with R. 'Ptarmigan'.

It is a result of local garden enthusiast Bruce Campbell crossing R. leucaspis with R. edgeworthii.

The remnants of his rhododendron garden can be seen on the slopes of Flagstaff here in Dunedin.

R. `September Snow' is slightly larger than R. `Ptarmigan', having a more rounded and open habit with leaves up to 8cm long.

The fragrant white flowers also have contrasting dark anthers, and are held in trusses of four to six.

Bud burst will occur in late August when it can be seen in the Rock Garden and also in the Rhododendron Dell on Balchs Island, an area devoted to locally bred rhododendrons.

Dwarf rhododendrons enjoy full sun or part shade, in a well drained neutral or slightly acidic soil.

They are shallow rooted so benefit from an organic mulch, and being fed in spring with a specialised rhododendron fertiliser.

This also helps to regulate the pH at an ideal level.

If containing use specially formulated rhododendron potting mix, then sit back and enjoy your late winter snow.

Robyn Freeth is the Rock, Water and Alpine Collection curator at the Dunedin Botanic Garden.

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